Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace

Sexual Harassment at workplace is a problem that is faced by women all around the world and it is not only limited to underdeveloped countries and developing nations but it takes place even in most developed and advanced countries, in every sphere of life women are tried to be oppressed and dominated. Sexual harassment at the workplace is defined as unwanted advancement towards her, which includes demanding sexual favours, passing sexually coloured remarks and other conduct of sexual nature that are coerced on women working in a particular organisation.

It negatively impacts both the physical and mental well-being of a woman. This problem is faced by both men and women, but it is more often faced by women. It is a root of various other offences like stalking, human trafficking, sexual abuse and in certain cases it even leads to the heinous crime of rape. Sexual abuse makes a victim feel humiliated, offended, intimidated, embarrassed, traumatized, all of this leading to depression and anxiety. Harassment can be physical or verbal. It does not mean that every advancement toward the victim falls under the ambit of sexual harassment, only those acts that are unwelcomed by the victim are considered offensive or harassment.

Women’s right to life, liberty, dignity and equality is violated by harassment at workplace. It leads to a feeling of insecurity among female employees and creates an unfriendly work environment which further dissuades women from participating in the economic development process.

Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, (Posh), 2013

To curb the sexual harassment cases, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 was introduced. This act was introduced after 16 years of the case of Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan[1], as before this act came into force, there was no such specific law that dealt with this heinous crime. The objective of this act is to prevent and redress cases of sexual harassment relating to the workplace. 

As per the Act, sexual harassment includes unwelcome acts (either direct or implied) of sexual nature, like inappropriate advances or physical contact, passing sexually coloured comments or remarks, sending nude pictures or pornography or any other verbal and non-verbal act that is inappropriate or it is of sexual nature.[2] Any act that falls within the ambit of the above-mentioned category is termed as sexual harassment. In the case of Shanta Kumar v. CSIR[3], the Delhi High Court held that “any case of physical or non-physical contact would fall under the category of sexual harassment, as long as, it was done to harass or intimidate the victim…but an act which was not stimulated by sexually-oriented behaviour, cannot be termed as sexual harassment.”[4]

This act lays down the legal mechanism for every organisation or institution to set up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), where the number of employees is more than 10, to hear and redress grievances relating to sexual harassment.[5] In case the number of employees is less than 10, then as per the act, the District Officer should set up a Local Committee (LC) in every district, the powers of which are in pari material to a civil court. In the case of Ruchika Singh Chhabra vs M/s Air France India and Anr.[6], Delhi High Court stated that “ ICC should be formed stringently as per the requirements of the law.”

The victim can file a written complaint before the ICC or LC within three months from the date of the incident or in case of recurring incidents, she can file a complaint within three months, from the date of the last incident. In certain cases, the legal heirs of the victim can also file a complaint on her behalf, if she is physically or mentally incapable to do so.

At first, when a complaint is received by the ICC, it tries to settle the dispute between the aggrieved and the respondent by way of conciliation, before starting an inquiry. But, in case the conciliation proceedings is not successful, in that case, it further proceeds with the inquiry.[7]

In the case where both the parties i.e. the victim and the respondent are employees, then, in that case, they are equally given a chance to represent themselves before the committee, following the principles of natural justice. Powers of the committee are similar to the powers of a civil court. The committee has to finish the inquiry within 90 days and during the continuance of inquiry, the aggrieved woman can be given certain reliefs.

After the completion of the inquiry, within 10 days, the committee has to submit a report of the inquiry to District Officer and both the parties. If the allegations against the respondent have been proved successfully, then the District Officer/Employer should take disciplinary action against the offender for sexual harassment and gross misconduct, as per rules of service and pay a certain amount of money to the victim, by way of compensation. These recommendations shall be acted upon by the District Officer/ Employer within 60 days of such recommendations.

Virtual Harassment

In today’s virtual era of increasing industrialization and globalisation, women in India are getting more and more involved in economic, social and political activities, but with these developments crimes against women have also increased immensely. Various offences take place in the virtual/ online world against women like online stalking, trolling, abusing, bullying, defaming, sending intimidating and sexual content via messages or emails. These cases are increasing day by day, but many cases are not reported and even if reported, they are not taken seriously by the officials. In India, the internet is cheap and is readily available to the majority of people in our country, but this technological development has also lead to an increase in cyber-crimes against women. 

Considering the current situation of lockdown due to Covid-19, where everyone is compelled to work from home and for this purpose, people have turned up to video calling apps for conducting various business meetings, seminars, lectures and conferences. Various educational institutions across India have asked is teachers to deliver online video lectures and share study material for academic purposes, due to this there have been a large number of cases reported by female professors and faculty members regarding the infringement of their privacy. Students pass obscene comments, troll, bully, abuse and harass teachers by sending inappropriate pictures, videos or texts via video calling apps. There are numerous other instances, where female employees have reported that people have been taking screenshots of their images during video calls without their consent, editing it and uploading them on the internet. Under the Indian Law, these activities might fall under the category of voyeurism as mentioned in section 354C of the Indian Penal Code and section 66E of Information Technology Act, but there is no such specific and rigid mechanism for dealing with these type of cases.

Conclusion

Sexual harassment of women at workplace involves a vicious circle of power and gender inequality that encompasses her freedom, security and life of dignity. This problem has penetrated every sector of our economy and because of this, several female candidates, who are ambitious and deserving, are unable to achieve their desired goals. When any such incident of harassment takes place during her employment, she gets mentally and physically traumatised. Generally, it has been observed that women of lower status are targeted by men of higher status having authority over them, but it does not mean that it is only limited to this. Sometimes sexual harassment at the workplace gets so much normalized that no one seems to bother about it or they fear to object to it, believing that they will lose their employment. To combat this problem, pragmatic and lasting solutions are required, which involves creating a safe and secure work environment for female employees, there should be a zero-tolerance policy in cases of sexual harassment. All organisations and institutions should strictly adhere to the guidelines as per the law and try to create a work environment that is based on principles of fairness and equal opportunity.


[1] Vishaka v. the State of Rajasthan, AIR 1997 SC 3011

[2]  Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, (POSH), 2013,

   Sec. 2(n)

[3] Shanta Kumar v. CSIR, 2017 SCC OnLine Del 11388

[4] Ibid

[5] POSH Act, 2013,  Sec.4

[6] Ruchika Singh Chhabra vs M/s Air France India and Anr. , 2018 SCC OnLine Del 9340

[7] POSH Act, 2013, Sec. 10

Bhavik Jain from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab


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